For the 11th year in a row (sigh) the leaders of the seven most important industrialized nations of the West (yawn) are meeting in Bonn, and will talk about "Star Wars," international trade and monetary policy (groan). You're not all that interested?
It figures. Given their particular nature, these gatherings count heavily for their effect on appearances and close attention. The Botch of Bitburg has probably damaged the prospects for this one beyond repair.
Even in the best of times, these summits are long on pomp and photo opportunities, short on substance. They have proved valuable more for their chemistry than their content, for definition of common concerns, for the signals they send, either to the world at large or to domestic constituencies. It was precisely for that last purpose that West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, exercising the host nation's prerogatives, contrived to advance the date of this year's gathering by about a month.
From all reports, he hoped -- get this -- to turn the summit, in part, into a timely ceremony of reconciliation, a celebration of 40 years of peace between once-bitter enemies; a forgiving and forgetting of bitter, bloody hostilities. The point was to do all this in advance of the 40th anniversary of V-E Day, on May 8. The summit would take the curse off the grim remembrances that Germany's World War II surrender would inescapably revive. It would also give Kohl an opportune political lift in advance of an important election in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia.
Ronald Reagan thought this was a swell idea when it was first put to him by his good friend "Helmut" (who calls him "Ronald") late last year, which seems to have been the last time he gave it thought. He would even lay a wreath at a West German war cemetery. That's the least he could do for a pal who had been sorely hurt by the way the World War II allies had cold-shouldered him at last year's 40th anniversary observances of the D-Day landings in Normandy.
The rest is squalid history. For want of a warm spell, the White House story goes, the whole fiasco might have been nipped at the start. There was snow covering the grave markers at the Bitburg cemetery when the president's advance men checked it out for camera angles. Michael Deaver, the master manipulator of presidential travel plans for maximum positive effect, is said to have had his mind elsewhere, presumably on his imminent departure from his White House tasks.
So the Americans didn't ask whether there were SS soldiers among those buried beneath the snow at Bitburg -- some 49 as it turns out -- and the Germans didn't bother to tell. The story broke three days after plans for the wreath-laying ceremony had been announced. Belatedly, Reagan tried to quell the immediate storm of protest by bowing to pressure to visit a Nazi death camp. But on Bitburg, he was adamant; it was the least he could do for a pal.
Leave aside the incompetency laid bare. The same goes for the seeming insensitivity; nobody should question Reagan's true feelings about the horrors of the Holocaust. More troubling, in its way, is the paralysis of the presidency. If Kohl had as much concern for Reagan's interests as Reagan has for Kohl's, he would offer a visit to another German war cemetery. Since he apparently does not, it was no answer for the White House to be saying last week, "It's up to Kohl."
It's not. As an honored guest in a friendly foreign land, an American president is free within reason to do what he feels like doing -- with U.S. interests and the anger and anguish of a significant number of his own citizens his principal concern. Still less is it up to Congress to pressure Kohl by passing resolutions telling him what to do. The president's silent acquiescence to the congressional action suggests he wants a way out. If so, it is up to him to tell Kohl what to do -- or what he, the president, wants to do.
By failing to do so, the president seems not even to realize that he is defeating the very purpose he and Kohl claimed to have in mind. He could have avoided the controversy with the right symbolic statements and gestures of remembrance. And both the president and the chancellor could still have made of the summit meeting of the Seven an occasion for rightful celebration of the ties that now bind old enemies.
Some such declaration will doubtless emerge from the Bonn summit -- along with useful indications of common concerns and even consensus, on a new round of trade talks, monetary reform and limited support for research on a futuristic nuclear defense system. But the Botch of Bitburg has introduced a senseless and divisive distraction. The question is not whether the Seven will do anything useful but whether, with the brouhaha over Bitburg, anyone will care.